Ann Johnson gave birth in the spring of 1984 in the hospital at Camp Lejeune, the sprawling Marine base on the North Carolina coast. But doctors did not bring baby Jacquetta straight to her mom. “I guess they were trying to prepare me for what she looked like,” Johnson told CNN.
Johnson was 18 and seemingly healthy, married to her high school sweetheart. But Jacquetta was born with severe abnormalities – a small right eye that didn’t open, a contracted right hand and such a severe cleft palate that she could not breathe on her own, Johnson recalled recently from her home in Raleigh.
The couple knew their baby would not live long. One day in the car, Johnson was playing with her seven-week-old daughter’s hair when the little girl stopped breathing.
They took her to the emergency room where medics struggled to save her, then asked the young couple what they wanted to do.
“I looked at my husband and he just dropped his head, not knowing what to say. And so, I looked up at the doctor and I said just … just let her go.”
Johnson’s dad was a Marine master gunnery sergeant. She’d lived with him on Camp Lejeune for a couple of years. She went to school there. Met her future husband, who also became a Marine, there. And it was there that she unknowingly drank and bathed in poisoned water.
Jacquetta’s death, Johnson says, put a huge strain on the couple’s marriage and eventually they separated. “My ex-husband went on to remarry and have a couple of more children. And there was nothing wrong with them,” she says. “So, then I started thinking about Jacquetta … It had to be me.” Crying, she added: “I thought that for all these years.”
Johnson is now one of the thousands of people – Marines and their kin and civilian employees – filing claims against the government for what they say the water they drank and bathed in on the base did to them. We now know that the water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated for years by an off-base dry cleaner, leaky storage tanks and chemical dumping.
An act of Congress signed by President Joe Biden in the summer opened the door for anyone who spent more than 30 days on base between the years 1953 and 1987 and who has suffered health complications since, to file a civil claim. No doubt you have seen the commercials on TV: lawyers offering to help for a slice of the compensation.
“Every Marine Corps member that enlisted east of the Mississippi during that time period may have come in contact with this water,” says Andrew Van Arsdale, an attorney based in San Diego who is now representing thousands of claimants. “And what does that mean in terms of damages? I mean, you’ve got a million people potentially, sick, (with a) life-ending, life-altering illness. I mean, it’s off the charts.”
Greg Sexton has also filed a claim. He spent the summer of 1977 when he was eight years old visiting his Marine father at Camp Lejeune.
“When I was 17, I was diagnosed with what’s called a Wilms tumor, which is a cancer of the kidney,” he said. Kidney cancer is one of the diseases now potentially linked to the chemicals in the water on the base, the Department of Veterans Affairs says. He needed surgery, and cancer spread to his lungs.
“It was an emotional, tough thing to go through as a teenager,” he said from his home in Phoenix, Arizona. “I had never really been in love or had a steady girlfriend or anything like that. I was just a kid … You start thinking, ‘Oh, man, I’m never gonna have this in my life?’”
Sexton said he is interested more in action than money.
“The Marines need to come forward and acknowledge what happened and make it right to all those people,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Marine Corps declined to comment when contacted by CNN for this story. They sent a statement that reads in part: “We care deeply about our service members, veterans, civilian workforce, and families – including those who have experienced health issues they believe are related to their time in service.”
No help yet
Van Arsdale surveyed his roughly 6,000 clients to ask what rank they were when they came in contact with the water at Camp Lejeune. A majority replied. And, he says, 96.3% said they were enlisted. 3.7% said they were officers.
“(In) certain areas, water super contaminated. (In) other areas, it wasn’t,” he said. “The Marine Corps barracks, right? The bachelor barracks, that was in the areas where the water was tainted.”
But large areas of the base used by officers and the enlisted and their families were affected by the polluted water, and South Carolina lawyer Edward Bell told CNN he knows many officers who were affected.
He is also representing claimants. “I have had the best of dealings with the Department of Justice,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to get organized to do right by these people.”
But Van Arsdale says he has filed thousands of claims on behalf of clients since August, and not a single one has been settled yet.
If a claim isn’t adjudicated within six months, then the claimant can file a lawsuit in the Eastern District of North Carolina. That will make it take even longer to get redress and increase legal costs.
“We’re gonna end up litigating these issues in terms of money damages in front of jurors in the Eastern District of North Carolina for years to come unfortunately,” says Van Arsdale.
The US Navy, which is overseeing the compensation, concedes no money has yet been paid out.
“The Navy’s Admiralty & Claims Division already is fully operational,” said Patricia Babb, a spokesperson for the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps, which is handling the claims. “Processing begins upon claim receipt; the initial step includes in-processing and initial evaluation. Currently, the Navy is primarily focused on this step. At this stage, no claims are fully adjudicated.”
Decades of trouble
The problems with the water used at Camp Lejeune have long been known by military officials. In October 1980, William Neal Jr., chief of laboratory services for the US Army Environmental Hygiene Agency, wrote, “Water is highly contaminated” on a surveillance report form. In March 1981, after repeated follow-up tests, Neal warned, “Water highly contaminated with other chlorinated hydrocarbons (solvents)!”
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says trichloroethylene, one of the major contaminants found on the base, was measured at 1,400 parts per billion in drinking water in May 1982. That is 280 times the maximum level now recommended in the United States by the EPA.
PCE, a dry-cleaning solvent, was measured at 215 parts per billion in February 1985 in Tarawa Terrace, an area that houses enlisted men and their families. That is 43 times the current level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. Only then, in 1985, were the most polluted water wells on base closed by the Marines.
The base commander at the time sent a letter to residents of the area that read in part, “Two of the wells that supply Tarawa Terrace have had to be taken offline because minute (trace) amounts of several organic chemicals have been detected in the water.” There was no mass health warning. Apparently, that didn’t come until 14 years later, after the Marine Corps began attempting to contact former residents of the base for an Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry survey to investigate if residents had suffered medical issues.
“I mean, one of the big things about cancers: if you can detect it early enough, you can, you can make it not as bad, right?” said Van Arsdale, the lawyer. “That is a failure of epic proportion and it’s nice to be at this point where we’re finally seeing some accountability for it.”
Potential victims, their lawyers, activists, and politicians have applied pressure for years to get to the point where Marines and their families could finally file for compensation.
It cannot take away all the concern about the effects of that summer in 1977 for Sexton. “There’s always that doubt when you go to the doctor and they take that X-ray, what are they gonna find?” he said of lingering fears that his cancer could return.
But for Johnson, it could give her an answer – that her baby’s short and painful life was not her fault.
“Everybody’s talking about money and, and financial compensation. Of course, that would be nice,” she says. But what she really wants, what she needs, is “to know that it could have been the water that I consumed,” she says. “And the government could be responsible for what I went through.”